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Saturday, October 13, 2012

Will 3D printing replace traditional manufacture?

It seems to be a topic on many people's minds today. Here's some reading material to get you started:

Will 3D printing make global supply chains unnecessary?
EU Looking to 3D Printing to Help Revive Manufacturing.
What's the Dreamweaver of 3D Design?

That last one kind of made my point for me. Of the multifacted discussion of the disruptive effect of 3D printing the idea that I'm most interested it is the effect of having a manufacturing facility in your own home. Only I want to know if it can go to the next step. Can a 3D printer allow an individual to do their own manufacturing? The video touches on many points that I'm going to kind of recap here, but they're things I've been thinking for a while.

Here's the scenario. Say I had a product idea, like a new sort of chess set that assembles into a robot, for example. Traditional manufacturing says that it needs to be injection molded, a process that cost $20,000 for something the size of a chess set. Consequently you need to commit to a run of at least 5000 to get your costs down, maybe more. What if your great idea can't sell 5000 units because it wasn't that great or you can't get the cost down enough? Well then you're out $20,000. That is a crushing loss for an individual. On the other hand what if you could 3D print a batch of 10 units and see how the market responds? If no one wants it you're out 10 units, at most you're out the cost of the printer which you can still use to explore other avenues. No one is left homeless and despondent with an aircraft hanger full of unsellable merchandise.

So a 3D printer can be a good way to test a market without losing your livelihood, but what if you create something and it is successful? Could a 3D printer keep up with demand? Is a 3D printed product of high enough quality to compete in a real market? Is the traditional route really the only way to go? I don't know. These are the question I'm trying to answer. Ill Gotten Games wants to know that too. I'm not going to go into detail but keep your eye on these folks, they've got something up their sleeve.

I don't know the answer but what I do know is a 3D printer alone isn't enough to make you a one-person manufacturing shop. For one products don't package themselves. But traditional packaging options are also geared for runs of thousands. Is there an option in between? Maybe. I'm saving up to explore one option right now. Just need to sell a few chess sets first...

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